THE BLOG
12/17/2014 05:31 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

Blind Spots and Boiling Points: Our Shortcomings As Parents and People

Michael Siward via Getty Images

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of watching my oldest daughter, Eleanor, perform in Houston Ballet's Nutcracker. It was, as my 9-year-old likes to point out, her first professional job. Technically she's right, they did pay her -- though her "salary" of $100 was quickly and substantially eclipsed by the cost we incurred buying tickets for all the shows she was in. But such is parenthood; there was no way we were going to miss a single one of her performances. Speaking of parenthood, as I watched Eleanor dance on the Wortham Theater stage, it occurred to me that she was all I was seeing. Literally. I simply did not notice anyone else in the cast, though I'm sure others were there. Presumably, my child-centered myopia can be understood and forgiven in this context. But what are, and should be, the bounds of this sort of blindness -- especially when it manifests in other settings?

Needless to say, this is an issue that schools deal with regularly. Well-intentioned parents want what they perceive as best for their kids, but are frequently unable to appreciate the wider implications for exceptions they seek or explanations they offer in support of their child's "unique" set of circumstances. Early in my career, I used to get upset by these interactions because I wrongly ascribed intentionality or assumed a sense of entitlement where there wasn't necessarily either; in fact, these situations are typically the result of "blind spots." The parents just cannot see some situations for what they are -- nor can they envision the consequences that frequently follow as a result of their advocacy. But make no mistake, there are consequences. According to a recent NPR story, studies show that children of parents who spend excessive amounts of time at their kids' schools are demonstrably less adept at reasoning skills. And writing for The Atlantic, author and teacher Jessica Lahey put it this way: "Year after year, my 'best' students -- the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives -- are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes."

Medically speaking, we know blind spots are real. The human eye is simply unable to see everything, even working as a pair, so our brain creates an image based on the surrounding visual field to "fill in" the missing area. Figuratively speaking, parents do the same -- but as discussed, often to the detriment of their children. Mom and Dad's incomplete view may be further compromised by good-hearted desire, which colors perspective. I know because Eleanor was the only ballerina I saw dancing that December night.

Sadly, this tendency among parents can happen to a people too. Earlier this fall, less than two hours before our annual fundraising event was to begin -- a seated dinner for over 500 people -- the Rabbi overseeing Kosher observance told us we had a problem. "The waiters can't serve the wine," he stated matter-of-factly. "Why not?" I asked, far less calmly. "Because it's not Mevushal." Without delving into all the Talmudic details of this ancient Jewish law, here's the essence of the Orthodox practice. In short, a wine can be Kosher, which ours were, but not Mevushal -- which requires that it be boiled. (Wine connoisseurs, just breathe.) In order for a wine to be approved for consumption, the Rabbis obviously insist that it be Kosher; in addition, however, if the wine will be pored by non-Jews, it must be Mevushal in order to remain ritually pure. Historically speaking, the act of boiling was said to make the wine impervious to possible use in pagan ceremonies.

As soon as he finished his explanation, I peppered the supervising Rabbi with questions: "What if we just put open bottles on each table so people can serve themselves? What if your staff stays to confirm that the waiters don't engage in any pagan ceremonies?!" All of my attempts to find lawyerly loopholes failed. f we wanted to retain our Kosher certification, we had to abide by the rule -- which we did. At 4:45 p.m., our Methodist C.F.O. made a quick run to Kroger. I was both embarrassed and angry.

During the course of our animated exchange, the Rabbi commented that his approach is what's kept the Jewish People together for thousands of years. I vigorously disagreed. Our tradition is a rich and beautiful one -- but it can, should and has changed over time. Even Orthodoxy. Adapting our religious practices to modern sensibilities isn't just a matter of convenience, it's the right thing to do ethically. For example, according to Deuteronomy, gay men commit "an abomination" when they love each other. I refuse to accept that part of Torah as truth. Whether the issue is "impure wine" or "improper relations," we must acknowledge our own religion's limitations, its blind spots. In so doing, we don't undermine our tradition, we enhance its ongoing relevance.